Instead of a new day dawning, perhaps the better image for the new church year is midnight: the clock has struck, but we are still here in darkness. Advent invites us into the new year looking forward to something we don’t see yet. Each week another candle is lit, the light grows until we arrive at the manger and all the brightness within. So how do we create anticipation now, so that, like so many Advents gone by, we aren’t one step behind, just missing the chance to be present to the movement of God in our lives?
Amy gave us some helpful tips last week, suggesting ways we can participate in Advent as storytellers, embodying the narrative of the season in little moments throughout our day, pacing yourself and your family through the season. This week, I want to offer another step we can take to help us make space for anticipating and entering the presence of God, especially as calendars clutter and time accelerates toward the end of December. This week, when you’ve shaken off your post-Thanksgiving food fog, find a simple habit of stillness, silence, or solitude that you could take on for the next four weeks.
Notice I said OR. This isn’t a spiritual starvation diet or detox. Nor is it the sort of intentional fast we enter into during Lent, when we curate a sense of our limitation to learn to lean again on God. No, this is just a simple nudge in the direction of awareness and presence, acknowledging that if we live in the dark, our eyes take longer to adjust to see.
How many times have we heard St. Augustine quoted: Our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We resonate with this because we know how restless we feel, yet our days disciple us in relentless freneticism. Stillness says stop. It decouples our value from the work we do. It reminds us that we aren’t sharks; we don’t need to keep moving to live. In stillness, we give God permission to steer our mind, direct our thoughts, and guide our activity.
I’m really, really bad at stillness, which probably means it’s what I need the most. Recently, I’ve been practicing with the very simple Centering Prayer app, trying to hold my mind, body, and spirit fully open to God for just five minutes without flitting off to to-do lists and distraction. It’s a work in progress.
For all the control I think I have over my will, I don’t actually experience more than a few moments a day in which I’m alone with my thoughts. Our impulse for constant input has left our consumption of information feeling more like a full-time feeding tube instead of intermittent meals. There are enormous forces–entire economies–devoted to capturing our attention, but more and more I’m aware of how much I want to hand over my attention.
We all have a lot of work to do on this, as a culture and as individuals. But a simple resolution to ‘waste’ some time each day, reclaiming some real estate in our thought life, may make it possible to address what we’ve been holding at bay and open ourselves to that still, small voice of the Holy Spirit within us, calling if only we will listen. Take a walk without earbuds, keep your phone in your pocket in line at the store, sip your morning coffee without any input–find a habit of silence.
This isn’t the same as loneliness; heaven knows, we already have too much of that. To practice solitude is to be reminded our worth isn’t tethered to the validation of others. We learn again that what others need from us is something deeper than our efforts to earn their approval. Ironically, learning to be content in solitude enables us to be more directed at others, having quieted the part of us that seeks to manipulate, flatter, or fix. We are free to feel compassion, to offer ourselves fully to others without expectation.
Solitude may take some intentionality. Maybe it isn’t a daily habit, but simply a few chunks of time set aside when you can get away for a form of retreat. (There’s a great local Advent retreat coming up soon.) Place yourself in a posture where the only demand placed upon you, the only ‘use’ for your presence, is to be fully yourself in the sight of God.
Choose just one of these, make a plan, and tell someone who can encourage and support you. This season offers us so much goodness and grace if we are able to attend to it. Let’s look toward the light together.